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Queers in History: A Colourful Past

A look into the past

Regardless of the selective blindness of our history books, and the insistence of conservatives to the contrary, queers behaviour has been around pretty much since humans have. Despite what has been perceived as a huge increase in those identifying as part of the queer community in the last few decades, even a cursory review of history reveals that being gay, trans or non-binary is really nothing new. Of course, there’s a few examples which are bandied about frequently, like the ancient Greeks with their catamites, but largely speaking, our history books fail us when it comes to depicting the queer communities and individuals who were very much a part of the past world, whether their communities were accepting of their lifestyles or not.

This lack of representation can be attributed to many factors, including the incredibly Western-centric perspective of many ‘standard’ history texts which often completely neglect or oversimplify any mention of non-Western culture and the queer identities which may exist within them, like the hijira of India or the maohi of Tahitian culture. Then, too, there is the issue of alternative perceptions of what constitutes being ‘queer’. Obviously, queer is a relatively new term, having gone from a neutral adjective to a derogatory slur to a term reclaimed with pride by many non-cis and non-hetero people in the course of about 150 years. Similarly, most of the terms that now comprise the LGBTQIA* community were either non-existent or had considerably different meanings and associations in the past. This means that it’s effectively impossible to categorise historical personalities within our own modern context – we can only look at what the records tell us of their behaviour, and recognise elements that correspond with our own understanding of queers today. However, in the interests of queer recognition, allow me to call to your attention just a brief selection of historical accounts of queerness.

Queerness in the European Mediaeval Period

While records suggest that intersex people were often shunned and viewed as unnatural, their existence was certainly not denied. In fact, there appears to have been strict theological rules that forced intersex individuals to choose to live as either male or female, depending either on their own choice or a decision made for them at birth – in this way, the Mediaeval period isn’t so far from the modern attitude adopted by many parents of intersex children. The fact of their existence is supported by detailed explanations from theologians on the expected sexual intercourse of so-called hermaphrodites: the Church didn’t seem to care which sex you identified with, as long as you strove to make babies with someone of the opposite sex.

Homosexuality was definitely also recognised in this period, albeit mostly as an ungodly sin. Some scholars believe that marriage in the clergy was encouraged in the 11th and 12th centuries precisely because of the abundance of priests turning to sinful sodomy as a substitute for heterosexual relationships. Female same-sex love is not nearly so well documented as that of males, perhaps due to the mediaeval understanding of sex as purely the penetrative act. This has been suggested as the reason for which there are so few records of female-female sex – one of the only examples comes from Katherina Hetzeldorfer in 1477, who was accused of “using a [wooden] instrument” in order to

“have her manly way” with another woman. However, there is also some evidence of lesbian-like relationships in this period, including that of Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge, who were immortalised on a brass memorial which depicts both women facing each other in semi-profile, indicating a certain degree of intimacy even if the exact nature of their relationship remains unknown.

Queen Christina of Sweden, who ruled from 1632 to 1654, is a well-known as a monarch who renounced gender norms. Not only did she frequently dress in men’s clothes and adopt masculine mannerisms, Christina was noted as having ‘masculine features’ and being unusually hairy. She was also suspected of having had a romantic relationship with at least one woman, Ebba Sparre, who she referred to as her ‘bedfellow’, and potentially others. While Christina herself wrote that she was “neither Male nor Hermaphrodite”, and historians have speculated that some of her physically masculine traits may have been caused by Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, other scholars believe that she may have been intersex or, perhaps, what we recognise today as a transman. In any case, it appears clear that she was, to some extent, a literal queer queen.

Queerness in the Victorian Era

There are many reports of homosexuality and other forms of queerness from the 19th century. While there are some notable, oft-quoted examples of celebrities, like Oscar Wilde with his famous speech on ‘The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, or the generally sexually wild Lord Byron, there was plenty of same-sex love happening a lot more quietly under the rule of a queen who famously declared that female sexual relationships were ‘impossible’. Poor Vicky – clearly she didn’t know about folks like Anne Lister, who was so busy sleeping with other women that she had to keep track of them with a diary written in secret code. When Anne tired of the playboy life, she settled down with wealthy heiress Ann Walker in what has largely been recognised as the first lesbian marriage in Britain. The two sapphic lovers also went to visit the widely-recognised ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who lived together as a couple. Though these ladies were known all over Britain for their unusual living situation and their choice to often wear masculine attire, it is not certain that the women were in a sexual relationship.

In short, it is clear that there were people in the past living in a way which doesn’t align with the straight cis-normativity that is so often considered the default of the human experience. However, from our modern context, it can be hard to determine whether an individual whose actions appear to fit a queer narrative was acting this way as part of a larger tradition of queer culture, or if their personal identity was a more revolutionary refusal to accept societal norms. The limited collection of queer history I’ve described today is only the tip of the iceberg: if you’re interested in history, there is so much more to be found, from transgender people in 18th century Europe to the gay pornography produced during the Tang Dynasty in China.  Queerness is a part of our collective history – even if the straight white cis men who write our history books and make our period dramas haven’t bothered to include it.